In writing about Cavalli’s Ormindo, it’s hard not to feel that everything has already been said. (But I’m going to say it again anyway.) This production made its immensely successful debut in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse last year, blending the musical expertise of the Royal Opera House with the theatrical immediacy of the Globe. It is, quite simply, a match made in heaven: Cavalli’s operas, which predate the swaggering show-off arias of the high Baroque, feel like exuberant plays that just happen to be set to music. Naturally there’s nowhere in London more skilled at bringing such things to life than the Globe.
There are no sets or backdrops here, save the large painted backcloth that goes up in Act 2, showing dragons snarling around the mouth of a cave. Instead, to convey changes of scene or space, the singers adopt usual practice at the Playhouse: clambering through the audience and leaning from balconies (for the inevitable prison scene), making the whole performance wonderfully immersive. That sense of intimacy is heightened by its beginning. You file into the auditorium to find the singers assembled on stage in their dressing gowns, chatting as they do their make-up by candlelight. It’s a conceit that I’ve seen used before, both in opera and plays, and I always enjoy it: it emphasises the artificiality of the world we’re about to enter, but also provides a moment of transition which draws us into the fantasy along with the cast as they transform themselves.
There’s nowhere to put surtitles in the Playhouse and so the opera has been translated into English, but the remarkable thing is that Christopher Cowell’s translation feels utterly natural and homogeneous. It worked even better, for me, than that of the Roundhouse’s Orfeo, which I thought generally good but sometimes self-consciously archaic. Cowell’s English has a 17th-century flavour but it ebbs and flows with consummate ease, peppered with rhymes and half-rhymes but never feeling forced. It never feels like a translation. Most crucially, it also manages to preserve the liveliness, wit and raciness of the original – with some very clever adaptations.
For example, in the prologue Music (Susanna Hurrell) floats down from the ceiling in a billowing white gown and superb plumed headdress. She begins with the allegorical declamations familiar from other operas by Cavalli and Monteverdi, but it rapidly becomes clear that, with tongue firmly in cheek, she’s deviating slightly from Giovanni Faustini’s original libretto. In a 17th-century style she references the Thames, Shakespeare and the oaken walls and arches of her new home, now a year old. The audience loved it and it set the scene perfectly. In the hands of this gifted team, Cavalli’s opera feels as fresh, lively and daring as if we were that very first audience at the theatre of S. Cassiano in Venice in 1644.
The plot is relatively simple. Two princes, Ormindo (Samuel Boden) and Amidas (Ed Lyon), have come to Morocco to offer their aid to old King Ariadenus (Graeme Broadbent) in his war against the marauding Spanish. However, their noble intentions have been undermined by a more powerful force: Love. Each of them is besotted with a beautiful woman. As old friends, they’re naturally pleased for each other (though each is convinced the other’s beloved can’t be as lovely as his own). However, when they laughingly exchange miniatures of their ladies to compare them, it turns out, to their horror… yes, you’ve guessed it. They’re both in love with the same woman: Erisbe (Susanna Hurrell again), the flirtatious and bored young queen of tottering Ariadenus. Each of the friends is convinced that Erisbe would be his, if only his rival would stop bothering her. But how to prove this? As Erisbe confides to her maid Mirinda (Rachel Kelly), she’s enjoying herself so much that she has no intention of choosing between the two (and, indeed, would be perfectly happy to entertain both at once…).
While the friends wrangle over Erisbe’s affections, and the hapless servant Nerillus (James Laing) wrestles against the sinful allure of cosmopolitan life, Amidas little guesses that his own past is coming back to bite him. It comes in the form of an exotic veiled gypsy girl, who arrives at the court with her old hag of a companion, and sets about telling scarily accurate fortunes. You won’t be particularly surprised to learn that (in true Baroque fashion) this gypsy is none other than the princess Sicle (Joélle Harvey), formerly loved by Amadis and abandoned by him in favour of the flighty Erisbe. Not being the sort of girl to sit back and mope, Sicle and her nurse Eryka (Harry Nicoll) have tracked down her errant lover to Morocco, determined to remind him where his duty lies. The scene is set for a romantic farce which has moments of real beauty and tenderness alongside occasionally very bawdy lyrics. (If you think early music is staid, pretty much any Cavalli opera will put paid to that idea extremely quickly.)
In Cavalli’s day, as I’ve said, singers didn’t have the same opportunities to grandstand as they would sixty or seventy years later. Ormindo feels very much like an ensemble piece but, nevertheless, the young cast are all extremely good. Where they triumph over even some of the starriest singers that I’ve seen live is in their acting. In a space like this there’s nowhere to hide but equally the cast can act in a subtle and naturalistic way that would be lost in a larger theatre. Lyon’s and Boden’s muttered ad libs and black looks as they squabble over their princess are a delight and I thought Lyon in particular a very emotionally nuanced actor. His confident, rich tenor is backed up by a smouldering swagger which would have made a strong impression even if he hadn’t been rather easy on the eye. Boden attracted my attention in Le malade imaginaire back in the autumn for his remarkable voice, which seems (to my inexperienced ears) to be a very high tenor of the sort called haute-contre in French opera.* His character doesn’t undergo quite the same development as Amidas, but Ormindo does get some beautiful music, and the high point is the gorgeous duet he has with Erisbe in Act 3 as (spoiler!) they face up to the likelihood of death.
I thought Hurrell was technically very good: she dazzled me from the moment she began swooping up those scales in her Prologue, and her voice was set off well both in her scenes with Ormindo (Boden’s light voice echoing her bright soprano) and in those with Mirinda (where Kelly’s more voluptuous tones suggested the contrast in worldly experience between mistress and maid). Of the women, however, I found Harvey the most enjoyable to watch because her rich, powerful voice could hop with such facility between accents: the eastern lilt of the gypsy, the pure melancholy of the forlorn Sicle and the brash American twang of Lady Luck (‘Are you on Twitter?’ she demanded of someone in the pit). She and Lyon were also responsible for one of the most moving scenes, as Amadis is confronted by the supposed shade of the ‘dead’ Sicle.
Of the other cast members, I must mention the two ‘comic relief’ roles. I don’t always get on so well with these parts, because they can feel forced, but both Nicoll and Laing did very well. Laing (who alternates in the role with Rupert Enticknap) was a very gifted physical comedian: the role didn’t really give him the opportunity to make the most of his voice, but he drew out all the humour of Nerillus’s immaturity; and Nicoll was on fine form in the traditional dame-like part, complete with what can only have been a pair of balloons stuffed down his dress. Laing also made an appearance in a couple of scenes as Love, which involved (in his most dramatic entrance) being winched down from the ceiling half-naked, carrying a bow and arrow and wearing a blindfold, glittery red lipstick and a heart-shaped tutu. Give the man some respect.
All was delightful; costumes were deliciously extravagant. The ‘gypsies’ wore strings of coins and layers of veils, while Erisbe made her first entrance in a pink satin dress that incorporated its own bed (hard to describe), which literally formed the perfect backdrop to her pouting lament about the miseries of being married to an old man. Everything had a faintly Moroccan flavour, from caps to slightly curling shoes. It would be remiss of me, perhaps, if I didn’t note that the production is also very aesthetically pleasing in other ways – something it knows only too well. This becomes clear when the two male leads strip off their shirts during their jostling braggadocio at the end of Act 1: a moment which gratified all the ladies in the audience enormously; and probably some of the men as well. Shamelessly exploitative of course; but I find it hard to criticise.
The run is pretty much sold out, as far as I’m aware, but there are occasional returns. If you haven’t seen this yet, I urge you to go. If you like early music, it’s a chance to see a production that brings Cavalli back to rousing, pulsing life. If you like Shakespeare, it unfolds like a riotous comedy. Either way, you’re in for a supreme treat. Let’s hope that this, like last year’s Duchess of Malfi, is either broadcast in cinemas or released on DVD, so that more people around the world can savour it; because it really is something worth sharing. And, most importantly of all, let’s hope that the great success of Ormindo (not to mention Farinelli) paves the way for many more Baroque operas to be staged in this perfect little venue.
One of my opera buddies, who was at the same show, has now posted his own review, so hop over to see what The Operatunist has to say. I’m glad to see that my comparison between Ed Lyon and Rollo from Vikings made it into the finished article, so thanks for that, my friend… The London contingent have been busy, in fact: Dehggial saw Ormindo last week, and you can find Opera innit‘s take on the show here.
* But I’m perfectly ready to be rushed at and corrected by hordes of cognoscenti, so please go ahead.